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Free agency is game of 'tag'; As in Freeman's case, franchise label often creates sticky situation


When the NFL's free-agent season lurches into action this morning with phone calls, faxes and sweet talk, Antonio Freeman will prepare for the sound of silence.

As fate and the Green Bay Packers would have it, the big-play wide receiver probably will have to wait a little longer than the rest of the Class of 1999 for his own personal payday.

"I'm not going to play with a franchise tag," Freeman said late Wednesday night from Hawaii, where he played in his first Pro Bowl. "I won't report to training camp or minicamp if they put the franchise tag on me."

They did and he won't.

Green Bay franchised the Baltimore native yesterday, which means he is suddenly in the extremely prohibitive class of free agent. For any team that wants to sign him, Freeman will cost two first-round draft choices and perhaps a record contract.

His most logical options are accepting the Packers' terms -- their last offer was four years, $15.5 million -- or holding out until he gets his. Obviously, the Packers don't want to lose him.

Freeman was joined in franchise limbo by a number of prominent free agents yesterday, among them Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Richmond Webb and three other wide receivers -- Cincinnati's Carl Pickens, Arizona's Rob Moore and San Francisco's Terrell Owens.

Franchise limbo is not particularly the place to be. A year ago, nine free agents wore franchise tags. Six of them, including Ravens center Wally Williams, missed a major portion of training camp. One, Kansas City defensive tackle Dan Williams, sat out the season.

But it's not skid row, either. A franchise player is assured of receiving the average of the top five salaries for the previous season at his position. For Freeman, the amount is $3.351 million. But that is more than $2 million under market value for the league's top receivers.

Minnesota's Cris Carter got a four-year extension last season worth $5.875 million a year. San Francisco's Jerry Rice was averaging $6 million a year on a contract he restructured recently.

This off-season, Freeman, who turns 27 in May, heads a group of wide receivers that could break the bank. Pickens' agent, Steve Zucker, has said he expects his client to get more than $6 million a year. The Cardinals' Moore is seeking a four-year deal worth between $4 million and $6 million annually.

Then there's J. J. Stokes of the 49ers, Sean Dawkins of the New Orleans Saints and Charles Johnson of the Pittsburgh Steelers, all of whom will draw big offers.

Freeman, the 90th pick in the 1995 draft, doesn't see the surplus of receivers as a negative compounding his franchise dilemma, however.

"It plays into my hands," he said. "It gives me the opportunity to sit back and see what happens with Rob Moore and Terrell Owens and J. J. Stokes.

"If they get six years, $36 million, Antonio will sign for six years, $39 million. It's not win-lose. Now we get to see the whole table. That's what we're going to do."

The rest of the free-agent class is not as deep or as talented as the wide receivers. The most destitute positions are running back and quarterback. There's not a name player among the running backs, and the top quarterback might be the erratic Kerry Collins, who quit on the Carolina Panthers last season. Noting Collins' 14 turnovers in 24 quarters after joining the Saints in October, coach Mike Ditka decided to let him leave.

The fifth player taken in the 1995 draft, Collins is only 26; he'll have offers. The two other quarterbacks who might attract more attention, though, are Rich Gannon, 33, of the Chiefs, and Trent Green, 28, of the Washington Redskins. Gannon went 10-6 as a starter the last two years filling in for injured Elvis Grbac. Green won six of his last nine starts after the Redskins opened 0-7.

The falloff at quarterback is precipitous after that. There are several "street" free-agent quarterbacks who became available yesterday or soon might. The Redskins released Gus Frerotte, Seattle cut Warren Moon, and Oakland is undecided about whether to bring back Jeff George.

A year ago, when the salary cap jumped from $41.45 million per team to $52.38 million per team, salaries skyrocketed. This year, the cap jumped less than $5 million to $57.288 million per team.

While there is less money to spend on free agents, the market price still will go up on an individual basis, said New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi.

"There will be teams that have a lot of money," he said. "I've heard some clubs say they'll put all their money on one shot. Cleveland will be like Carolina and Jacksonville. Carolina drummed us out of the box on [defensive end] Mike Fox."

Carolina waded heavily into the free-agent market in 1995 as an expansion team, and the Cleveland Browns have an even better opportunity this year. After spending $18 million in cap money in the expansion draft this week, the Browns have nearly $40 million to sign free agents and draft picks.

"We should have a tidy sum available for free agents," said Browns president Carmen Policy. "Neither cap space nor cash should be an impediment to our going forward in free agency."

The Browns are expected to make a $5 million-a-year offer to Giants defensive end Chad Bratzke, who had 11 1/2 sacks playing opposite Michael Strahan. They also are interested in Webb.

Other free agents who'll command attention are safety Carnell Lake of the Steelers, defensive tackle Santana Dotson of the Packers, cornerbacks Dale Carter of the Chiefs and Ryan McNeil of the St. Louis Rams, and linebackers Jamir Miller of the Cardinals and Ed McDaniel of the Vikings.

"Last year we had a great group of high-profile defensive tackles," said James Harris, the Ravens' pro personnel director. "This free-agent class doesn't have the overall depth."

Pub Date: 2/12/99

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